The fabled Blue Men of the Sahara — the Tuaregs — have been trading in their traditional camels for jeeps in recent years. But this year they traded in their daggers and rifles for Kalashnikovs and rockets supplied by the late Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
With these new weapons they seized a key garrison town in Mali on March 11 and heated up a simmering rebellion spread across both Mali and Niger.
Dozens of people have died since January and 100,000 people have fled their homes in one of the most arid, poor and remote regions of the world.
The Tuaregs have ruled the desert routes across the Sahara for centuries, carrying salt, cigarettes, and other goods to and from North African cities such as Marrakesh, Morocco, and sub-Saharan Africas cities such as Kano, Nigeria.
They are only a million to 1.5 million in number, living on the fringes of the established nations surrounding the Sahara: on the south are the Sahelian states of Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauretania; on the north are Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.
Gadhafi hired many Tuaregs to fight for him over his years in power; and he hired even more in his last-ditch effort to cling to power in Libya. When he fell and was slain by the rebels, the Tuaregs went back to their tribal homelands in the Sahara, taking with them the high powered weapons Gadhafi had given them.
March 11, the Tuaregs seized control of a garrison town in Northern Mali as government soldiers fled into Algeria for safety. The Mali government claimed the Tuaregs were joined by drug smugglers and Islamists linked to Al Qaida.
The Tuaregs reject these charges and say they only want to have some autonomy and control over their troubled, vast remote area. Some say they really want their own state.
Much of the Sahara has become a no-go area for Westerners be they tourists, journalists, aid workers or researchers. Many foreigners have been kidnapped and some killed by groups claiming to be with Al Qaida. Some say these groups are opportunists seeking ransoms.
I have been advised by my Tuareg friends that it is no longer safe for me to visit the region, said Tom Seligman of Stanford University, who has spent decades researching and studying the Tuareg.
He says that the real reason for the upsurge in rebel activity is that Tuaregs feel they face discrimination by the governments around them, and they have inherited the heavy weapons from Libya offering an opportunity to carve out a place of their own.
For many years the fiercely proud and independent Tuaregs a distinct group branching off the more widespread Berbers of North Africa have felt discrimination. In some countries they have even been forbidden to use their own language, Tamashek.
The Arabs, who conquered the Berbers of North Africa in the 7th century, look down on the Tuaregs as primitive people who have little affection for law and order. The Tuaregs and other Berbers also resisted the imposition of Islam and still follow some animist practices.
On the south, the Black-African majority states of the Sahel region such as Niger and Mali were seen by the light-skinned Tuaregs to limit their opportunities in government and business.
In Niger, for example, Tuaregs objected to the governments decision to invite Chinese workers to operate the uranium mine in the Sahara, leaving the local Tuaregs without jobs and saddled with pollution of land and water.
Several years ago I traveled in Land Rovers across the desert with the cousins of the Tuareg the Sahrawis of the former Spanish Sahara. We rode for five days across the trackless desert, following stars at night and finding water wells in the scrub that shielded us from Moroccan jets. Their Polisario guerrilla movement had tried to carve out an independent state and it fought against Morocco, which seized control after Spain pulled out in 1975.
Morocco won the war after it built a 2,000 kilometer -long berm of sand across the desert to keep out the Polisario. Sadly, perhaps 75,000 Sahrawi refugees remain in tents in Algeria, kept prisoner by their own Polisario guerrillas so that foreign aid keeps their movement alive.
If the Tuaregs can be persuaded to meet in a neutral place and seek remedies to their grievances, the Sahara may be spared another pointless guerrilla movement that drags on for decades, impoverishes governments all around and makes it impossible for aid, trade and development to take place.
The United States appointed former Secretary of State James Baker to try and end the Polisario-Morocco standoff. He failed but made an honest and respected effort.
The United States, which has sent special forces, trainers and other troops to Mali and the region to fight Al Qaida, should lead diplomatic efforts to bring the Tuareg and the governments of Mali, Niger and Algeria, to the table with concrete proposals.
The Tuareg should have some say in the administration of resources in the desert. They should get access to land with water as they move their flocks away from a drought-affected region. They should be invited to join local governments, police and armies as equal citizens of their home countries. And a pan-Tuareg cultural or trade union could be formed to facilitate their nomadic journeys and preserve their unique lifestyle.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor, Salon.com, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war is to be published in 2012 by de-MO.org. He can be reached at email@example.com.
McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.